Monday, June 22, 2009

How to Outsmart a Teenage Boy

It's really rather simple.

The older boy I've been talking about, "Jorge," is currently in the habit of saying no to everything - things he has wanted to do, things I know he'd like, things he needs to do - everything that is suggested by someone else. So he is spending all his time sitting on his butt feeling sorry for himself. Which he has plenty of reason to do, but this is not very effective. Nothing has worked so today I decided to try a different approach. He has been wanting to earn money but now he says he doesn't want to do anything. Here's our text "conversation":

me: Hey, I have a dirty car and $10 for anyone who wants to wash it. Do you still want to earn money?

him: [no response. I am ignoring all adults. Whatever you have to say must be totally worthless and you know I am just going to say no.]

...two hours later...

me: It's OK if you don't want to. One of my neighbors has kids* who want to earn money. I'l just ask them.

...20 seconds later...

him: I never said I didn't want to

me: Oh, I was going to ask them now. Do you want to?

him: Yeah I do

WIN! And so simple. At least there will be one day this week that he is actively doing something out of his house.

Warren (my friend who is equally involved with these kids) and I are now plotting ways to get them to go to camp. Which they'll love if they go but "I ain't going. Oh well!"

I'm thinking something along the lines of "Since you guys don't really want to go to camp, I'm going to tell the camp that they can give the spots to some other kid who's been wanting to go."

I am predicting that will raise interest.

*There are no neighbor kids that want to earn money. I made it up and it was worth it.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


It's been interesting to see how everyone is grieving Joshua. Well, actually, it's been horribly heartbreaking, but also interesting, in a way.

In the family I've been helping out with, we have very mixed reactions:

"Rosa," the mother, is being extremely strong for her kids. She hasn't had an easy life and hasn't been around for a lot of the raising of the kids, so they are - understandably - rebelling against her. She's doing a pretty good job staying consistent and enforcing rules, which is hard to do when you have a son who's bigger than you screaming in your face. My friend and I have been trying to help however we can - encouraging her to keep her authority, mostly, because she is the adult in the house and the kids will eventually learn that. Rosa likes the new place a lot but is worried about money (there's probably funds through August 31, then she's back to trying to find a place on just a few hundred a month - not easy).

"Jorge," or as well call him, "the big one," (he's tall and skinny, with a recent growth spurt), is just plain angry. He wants to kill the person who killed his friends. He talks a lot about what he's going to do even though he won't do it. "I'm gonna go and get me a gun..." "I'm gonna leave and not come back..." I'm not too worried about the running away because, as a friend pointed out, if he was going to run away, he'd run away and not text me three times in one day saying that he's leaving. He doesn't want to do anything. Free summer camp? No. Camping? No. Working for money? No. Going to Waterworld? No. All things that he wanted to do at one point. Probably right now you could offer him a trip to anywhere in the world, with a million dollars thrown in and he'd say no just to be contrary.

This kid also talks a lot. Not like a chatterbox conversationalist, but like lists of what he's going to do that's inappropriate/calculated to set people off. He's always been a little like this but it used to be that I could hand him food and make a joke about putting food in his mouth to have some quiet and he'd think it was funny. Now it's all violent and angry. And his answer to most things is just "Oh, well."

He's also really mad at us because we have talked to his girlfriend's mom (at the request of Rosa) to set boundaries for when she can come over (she was basically living at their house and driving their mother crazy). Also, for the first time in his life, there are consequences for his behavior and that makes him furious. He keeps asking us (although only in text messages, interestingly) to get out of his life and never come back. If Warren and I didn't have such a strong foundation of a relationship with him, I would probably give up and assume there's no hope. But I think somewhere deep inside him, he knows how much we both love him and hopes that we won't take him up on his demands to leave.

And no, he doesn't need counseling, even if he did see his friend murdered, because "I ain't retarded." Sigh.

"Luis," who we call "the little one," although I suspect he will end up taller than his brother, which would give him great satisfaction, is also angry. He's still young enough (almost eleven) that he has his little kid clingy moments. In the swimming pool, he wants to climb all over grown-ups like they're jungle gyms. I let him spend the night at my house one night as a reward and he loved it and played in the sleeping bag. He loves working the stick shift in my car. He can be really really sweet and loving.

Then he has his off days. Which are more and more often lately. On his off days, he's a monster. I hate to call a kid a monster, but I really can't think of a better word. He throws things, kicks things, screams in his baby sister's face, and is mean to everyone. Whenever anyone tries to talk, he yells "NO!" no matter if they're talking to him or not. He'll get quiet when everyone else is quiet and the minute anyone talks, he yells again. Sometimes it isn't words, it's just yelling. He laughs hysterically if someone trips and says he wishes they fell. He says he's going to do mean things to his three month old sister. He kind of howls. He threatens to go back to his grandma's house (where we think the gang members are waiting for them). He screams that he doesn't care. Oh, and he's not going to counseling either. (Although if his big brother would, I'm sure he would in a minute).

However, both of these kids have apologized sincerely (and I know them) to me within the last week. Granted, it was only about three minutes each, but I think there is something there. Regardless, no one is giving up on them - we've known them too long and love them too much.

As for me, I'm still waiting for it to hit me that one of our kids died. Ever since I started at that school and saw the area, I've been worried about when a kid I knew would be killed. This is the one. I didn't know him super well, but I spent time with him the week before he died. He messed around and got in trouble and didn't do school well, but he was smart and funny and loved his family fiercely. And another kid killed him and I don't even know why. But I'm still not really feeling anything. I don't know if it's still shock or if it's the fact that I've been so busy with the other kids or what, but I would have expected to feel more sadness by now.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Guns and Lockdowns

(I thought about including an image of a gun on this page, for visual interest, and I couldn't do it. Just couldn't.)

The kids I've been talking about in my last few posts are a little more stable, at least in terms of their living situation. Again, thanks to everyone who helped financially - you may very well have helped save these boys' lives - no exaggeration. Again, these are the kids who witnessed the murder and had to be relocated because the police (who I just love SO MUCH - is the sarcasm reaching you through the computer?) showed them off to the suspects so there are plenty of threats of retaliation to go around. Then they treated them like they were the criminals. But I digress.

They are in an apartment now which is bigger than ones they've lived in before and - while not in an affluent area at all - are not in danger. I think they're talked into counseling - and thank goodness, their mom and grandmother are 100% in favor of it. I worry about them - the older one talks about getting an AK-47 and shooting anyone who bothers him. He tends to say things for dramatic effect, but still. The little one - when I told him he gets to go to summer camp (yay! Post about that soon.) tried out my sleeping bag. He asked if the other boys would help him if he needed help putting it back in the bag. I said I thought they would, and he said, "If they don't help me, I'll just shoot them."

I understand that this is probably normal for kids who saw their friend shot and killed three weeks ago (can one use "normal" in that sentence?) but it is really hard to hear. Fortunately, I don't think these two have any access to guns and I actually think they're smart enough not to use them if they did, but it is definitely on their mind. And these are loving boys - not nearly as hardened as many in their schools.

To show a little bit of what the kids at my school (I haven't worked there in two years and my last set of kids just graduated from fifth grade, but I still think of it as my school) talked about in their graduation speeches.

First of all, fifth graders are just funny when they are doing public speaking. One of my old students gave a short speech about going to middle school and was apparently quite nervous, as most of her speech came out like this:

"Andnowthatwearebeingpromotedfromfifthgradewearegoingtomiddleschoolandwewillhavetoactlikelittleadults withoutthekindofhelpweareusedtofromourteachershereinelementaryschoolwhentheyhelpusallthetime."

(that's hard to type)

The speaker that almost made me cry though, was the next one. Her topic was elementary school memories and she was listing ways that she and other students could tell that their teachers cared about them. Along with "teaching us" and "helping us when we don't know something" she added something I've never heard in an elementary school graduation speech. She said something like "Another way our teachers show that they care about us is they don't let us go to the bathrooms or in the hall when there's shooting."

Now, I know exactly what she's talking about. At least once a year each year that I was there, we had a lockdown. A lockdown is when there's a threat and the teachers have to lock the doors, close the curtains, turn off the lights, and get the kids in the center of the room, if possible. There were plenty of times when I didn't even know the reason for the lockdown, but some I do remember were a parent running through the school with a gun (custody battle gone bad, I think), a high-speed chase of a bank robber over the Bay Bridge that ended in front of our school, and an arson/attempted murder-suicide thing at a carburator shop or something like that a block down the road.

Lockdowns themselves have a number of problems. First of all, since we changed principals so often, there was never an accepted procedure for any emergency action. Fire drills are pretty much the same from one school to the next, but we never got earthquake drills or lockdowns down. (Or bomb "treats" as one memo we received stated. "In case of a bomb treat...") Sometimes it was a series of bells, sometimes it was announced over the loudspeaker that it was a lockdown, and sometimes the current principal would use some kind of cute code intended not to freak out the children. One year it was "Mr. Keys has entered the building." Get it? Keys? Lockdown? That was the year all the kids asked if it was Alicia Keys' dad.

Then there are the logistical problems. The doors only lock from the outside, so you (the teacher) has to open the door and go in the hall to lock it - which is not ideal if you've just heard that there's a man with a gun running through said hall. I used to keep my door locked and just make everyone knock on it when I was in the portable classroom all exposed out on the yard. The principals always got mad at me, and I always did it anyway, after the first lockdown.

Then, you have a bunch of freaked out kids who have no idea what is going on and all need to do two things immediately: call their moms to make sure their moms aren't dead, and pee. We resorted to having kids pee in the sink a couple of times during long lockdowns - I had a blanket that someone would hold up and I cleaned the sink really well after. And I'd pass around the cell phone while we tried to keep doing school in the dark.

However, the thing that made me want to cry about this little girl's speech was the sincerity in which she said it. Just like another kid might say they knew their teacher loved them because she took them on field trips, this one knew her teacher loved her because she wasn't allowed in the hall when there was shooting. That's how much of an accepted part of life it is. And none of the parents reacted. I mean, imagine if someone had said that at an upper middle class graduation! No, these parents just nodded because they too know that it's one way the teachers take care of their kids. After all, the parents have taught their kids to get in the bathtub or the closet when there's shooting. I learned that my first year.

Finally, the kids - Jorge and Luis - I've been talking about before... right before their friend died, they found out their dad was arrested for possessing a handgun. I'm not sure, but I think he was a felon and therefore is not allowed to have a gun at all, but he's convinced the kids he didn't do anything wrong and they are full of righteous anger about him being locked up. Also, he'll probably be deported back to Mexico after he serves his time.

Amazing what a few inanimate objects can do to kids, even kids who have never even touched one.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

This is What I've Been Saying

That people tend to care more (or only care?) about violence when it hits suburban white kids. I understand that it's comforting to think that your children are different from those kids getting hurt and killed, but all kids are worth as much as yours are. All of them. I do not understand why we aren't equally upset when it's a poor minority kid as an affluent white kid.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

An Apartment!

The family has found an apartment! This may be only for a couple of months - it's a little more than they can afford and the DA's office only pays for the first month and the deposit. But they really like it, so I'm hoping they can work out how to pay for it. It's a two bedroom, and before this, they were in a studio, so that is awesome. The landlord is being very helpful and it seems to be a great situation. Thank you all for your prayers, financial help, good wishes... everything.

Soon the family will have to move on to the grieving process. Right now we're just seeing it in crazy emotional outbursts over seemingly little things. The little one is prone to temper tantrums anyway, but he's way worse, and I don't blame him. At the same time, he can't do things like hang up on his teacher and yell at his mom. Both boys say they're dead set against counseling but I'm hoping they get used to the idea.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009


I'm very tired so this won't be too detailed but a lot of people are helping and I want to keep them updated.

The apartment in Alameda fell through. They need (as most landlords do) a credit check and "Rosa" is not in the country legally (although all of her children are citizens). We're having trouble finding a landlord who will rent to someone without a credit score, even if she has the money.

However, Catholic Charities is totally stepping up. They sent a social worker to get Rosa through the Welfare office crazy red tape in record time, and she should start receiving food stamps and other aid for the kids (not for her, because she's not legal) on Thursday. Once she has this help, the social worker thinks it will be easier to find a landlord, because she'll have some sort of documented income.

In addition, people from all over - from my church, my family, my friends, old co-workers, friends of friends, friends' parents, Warren (the kids "Big Brother")'s friends... all sorts of people - have been incredibly generous. Although the DA's office is paying for the hotel room right now, the family has no money for food until the food stamps come through. In addition, the kids need clothes since they can't go back to get their own clothes. We've been using the money for food and clothes, and saving the rest for the deposit when they find a house. I'm keeping very careful track of all the money and expenses to ensure that every penny goes to the family's needs.

I want to thank everyone who has donated, prayed, or helped in any way. Without these donations, I think they'd be back in the dangerous neighborhood because they have no money for food and no way to get money other than going back to where their relatives live. If you have helped, you are both literally helping to save these boys' lives, as well as investing in some really amazing kids. The mother (who has had her own issues in the past - some pretty serious ones) is really holding it together but it's hard for them all to be cooped up in a hotel room.

More later, and thanks again.